Last weekend, in observance of the one-hundred sixtieth anniversary of the death of Saint John Vianney, Pope Francis issued an unexpected but affectionate letter to his sons and brother priests throughout the Church.
The letter was another surprise for the pope who, in the words of the prefect of his household, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, “is a person who surprises and welcomes surprises.”
For a pope most known for constructively criticizing his priests, the letter is a welcomed suspension of previous comments. It comes as blessed relief, a letter of paternal reassurance and fraternal charity.
Pope Francis begins the letter: “As an older brother and a father, I too would like in this letter to thank you in the name of the holy and faithful People of God for all that you do for them, and encourage you…”.
After the initial introduction, which provides an outline for the letter, the pope moves into a summary of the pain caused by the current crises, then to words of gratitude, followed by a message of encouragement, and then concludes with praise for the Blessed Mother, who is hailed as an example and model for priests and for the Church.
In the first part of the letter, the pontiff acknowledges the current crises in the Church and the pain they have caused believers and society. He also addresses the suffering of good priests, grieving for the priests whose own faith has been scandalized by the abuse and cover-ups, who are also thrown into an environment of suspicion by people of goodwill, and who have had their own pastoral ministries limited by the questioning and hesitation of others because of the crises.
In these acknowledgments, the pope proves to be a watchful shepherd, since many good priests – along with their people – have been shocked, hurt, and confused by the scandals and cover-ups.
After addressing the pain caused by the scandals, Pope Francis moves to words of gratitude. He affirms the selfless and dedicated service of the vast majority of priests, who seek to reflect the love and mercy of God to the people entrusted to their care. He gives thanks for their tireless efforts and constant compassion to others.
These words are followed by a message that is self-described as “encouragement,” but which is more of an exhortation and paternal correction. In this section of the letter, Pope Francis again displays his concern for the spiritual health of his priests. While his words ring true, they seem misplaced in the intention of the letter.
At times, it appears as if the pope is expressing a disapproval of the life of hard-working priests. However accurate (or not) these words might be, they appear out of place in the letter, especially following such strong words of gratitude. Perhaps the best explanation that can be given to the exhortatory words is that the pope truly wants humble, poor, and people-oriented priests and, in spite of any context, he has to emphasize these essentials.
Overall, the letter demonstrates much of the heart and spirit of Pope Francis. The recent book, The Other Francis: Everything They Did Not Tell You About the Pope by Deborah Castellano Lubov, reveals the inner life and convictions of the pope by way of multiple interviews with people who have known him for years or who have worked with him.
The quote above from Gänswein is taken from the book, as is this quote from the pontiff’s sister: “He was always joyful and supported me, as it is right for an older brother to do.”
In many respects, the book serves as an interior preamble to the writings of Pope Francis. The book intricately guides people (including myself) to understand who the pope is, what makes him tick, and from what personal worldview he is speaking. The book is a valuable resource for understanding the pope’s letter to priests.
After his encouragement, the pontiff’s letter comes to an abrupt conclusion. He moves to praising the Virgin Mary and wraps up the letter. It seems something is missing. Where is repentance? Although very briefly mentioned in the first section on pain, the repentance stated there is removed from personal accountability.
And, truth be told, the letter would have been much stronger and more credible if there had been an apology or some form of repentance by the pope. The pontiff has apologized before, in terms of the affairs in Chile and with the mismanagement and leaks in the Roman Curia, and so it would not have been out of character.
By not having some form of strong and robust repentance, which is central to our Christian faith, the letter is weak and less effective in giving inspiration and authentic encouragement to the countless faithful priests who love, work hard, and have to regularly apologize for the scandals and for the state of the Church today.